DAN VANCE: 5 things to watch in Central Noble girls basketball’s bid for a Class 2A state title against Winchester

Central Noble juniors Sydney Freeman and Meleah Leatherman are the top shooting duo in the Class 2A state finals. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)

Central Noble will face Winchester on Saturday at 12:45 p.m. at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the Class 2A state title game. The two teams are comparable in almost every way, leaving the game potentially wide open.

They have just one common opponent all year, with Winchester beating Bluffton by 22 and Central Noble taking them down by 12. But, considering the fact there were three months between these games, little can be drawn from the common opponent school of thought.

So, before the Cougars and Golden Falcons do battle for either school’s first state title, here are five things to watch for on Saturday:

Is there a way to stop both of Central Noble’s top scorers?

There have only been 11 total games where Central Noble juniors Meleah Leatherman and Sydney Freeman have not scored in double digits. Only one time did it happen in the same game.

Moral of the story: When Leatherman struggles, Freeman steps up. When Freeman struggles, Leatherman steps up. Wawasee was the only team to limit the pair in the same game, where they got off just 15 combined shots in the December 22 loss, but December 22 was a long time ago. As long as the duo can get off shots at their usual rate and not what they did in that game, they are difficult to contain. With Freeman’s 61 percent and Leatherman’s 57 percent, the duo have the two best shooting percentages in the Class 2A title game and their 31.8 points per game is the best of any duo that could be picked from either team’s roster.

A true, quality inside-outside game can be a coach’s dream and an opposing coach’s nightmare. No other game plan this year has worked, so will Winchester’s?

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Can Central Noble score consistently behind Freeman and Leatherman?

We know that the Cougars top two scorers can put up offense in bunches. What happens behind them? In the semistate round, the 16 points scored by others were vitally important, especially during a runaway third quarter. Central Noble coach Josh Treesh said Monday during media day in Indianapolis that this game will come down to playmaker making plays. This is true. But stats alone show that Winchester likely has more playmakers.

Behind Freeman and Leatherman, the core four other Cougars: Calista Rice, Sam Brumbaugh, Bridgette Gray and Lydia Andrews have to continue to step up into bigger roles. Andrews looked good getting to the basket against Frankton and Rice’s big second half three was important. Better yet, they have the chance to take an opposing defense by surprise as they attempt to hone in on the big two. These other four can score and they will need to.

Leatherman versus the world

The junior has seen every team’s strongest player putting forth their best effort. So Saturday’s Winchester post play won’t be anything new to her except for depth. Against Frankton at semistate, Leatherman took some time to find her stride against a bigger and equally skilled Destyne Knight. Once she got comfortable, she forced Knight into silly fouls and then she went to work inside to the tune of a game high 21 points.

A lot of that can be applied to how she can take the attack at Winchester’s 6-foot-3 Kira Robinson, who averages 10.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. But what Frankton did not have that Winchester does is depth. And how will the Golden Falcons use that depth if Leatherman is able to work Robinson into foul trouble. 6-0 Shelby Miller is more than capable inside, but is playing with a torn ACL. 6-0 Maddie Lawrence leads the team in scoring and rebounding, but is a guard. Is she rotated into the post if needed? 6-3 sophomore Ara Cowper doesn’t get a lot of minutes, but her frame could be used to spell Robinson.

There will likely be no down time for Leatherman.

Running Winchester off the three point line

The Golden Falcons shoot the ball well from behind the arch, something that the Central Noble defense is accustomed to with Frankton. Winchester hits nearly 5-of-11 shots from long range, so there is likely to be a concerted effort to run Winchester shooters off of the three point line or force them to attempt to extend their range.

In the semistate round, Frankton actually got up 24 three point shots, seven over their average. But Central Noble’s pressure from guards forced some awkward attempts. If they can do so here, they can force more of an interior game. The Cougar defense was very impressive just a week ago, with their four primary guards all making Frankton uneasy both on the perimeter and when they forced the Eagles into driving to the basket. Staying solid on their toes and not getting winded is huge for Central Noble when defending a Winchester team that will make them work.

Treesh has been preaching defense ahead of all else and his girls have responded, right down to the very last Frankton possession last week by getting their hands in passing lanes and forcing errant passes when they were not throwing up errant shots. Defense has won, time to turn it up one more notch.

Who has the edge in a close game?

This will be the biggest game of the coaching careers of both Treesh and Winchester coach Holly Gutierrez. Treesh’s game in the semistate round in 2017 was the only appearance outside of Regional play for either coach ever. If this game is as evenly matched as statistics and experts believe, finding the coaching edge in a close game could be the difference maker.

While Winchester has three less losses than the Cougars, it is notable that Central Noble has the 187th toughest schedule in the state (in all classes) compared to Winchester’s 229th toughest schedule. In addition, Winchester’s wins haven’t been close so how well equipped are they to handle close games? Of their 26 wins, just three (four points vs. Jay County, seven points vs. South Adams and two points vs. Paoli) have come within 10 points. Central Noble has won six games within 10 points.

In a game where experience is not abound, does close game experience matter?

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Dan Vance at dvance@news-sentinel.com..